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The Blood of Heroes: The 13-Day Struggle for the Alamo--and the Sacrifice That Forged a Nation

The Blood of Heroes: The 13-Day Struggle for the Alamo--and the Sacrifice That Forged a Nation
by James Donovan

List Price: $29.99 
Hardcover: 512 pages
ISBN: 0316053740
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publish Date: May 15, 2012

Reviewed by Bruce L. Brager

On March 6, 2012, the thirteen day siege of the Alamo ended with just about an hour of fighting in the virtual dark. The Mexicans had the place, not surprising when some 2,000 soldiers fight about 200. Their commander, General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, also president of Mexico, commanded that “Much blood has been shed, but the battle is over; it was but a small affair.”[1] Santa Anna had a strong streak of self-aggrandizement, so in his report to Mexico City the battle took on elements on one of the major battles in history. Militarily, it might not have been a major battle, as these things go. But in its influence on history, the Alamo, and its follow up, was a key turning point in the history of two nations.

There is a new book out on the Alamo, The Blood of Heroes, by James Donovan. There are certain questions one should ask about any book and about a new book on an old topic. Is the book easy to read? This Is an all too often neglected question about history books. This book is easy to read.

Is there a need for another book on this subject? Does the book offer anything new? This book provides a useful reexamination of this somewhat familiar story. This book offers new, or at least not well publicized, details on some aspects of the Alamo story and legend. It finds eye witness testimony of civilian survivors who saw David Crockett’s body, that he had been killed in action. This might put to rest the story that Crockett survived the battle, only to be executed – curiously often presented as a criticism.

Donovan also examines the “line in the sand incident.” Supposedly, Alamo commander William Travis, the night before the battle, assembled his men, drew a line in the sand with is sword, and asked all those who would stay to cross over. Only one man did not, and he was allowed to leave and try to get through the Mexican lines. Donovan points out that sufficient independent sources exist for the story that, though it cannot be proven, there is a good chance it actually happened. There was, in fact, a “line in the sand” drawn before the Texans initially captured the Alamo, four months before.

Donovan also presented evidence confirming that perhaps fifty of the men in the Alamo tried to escape when they saw the battle was lost. There were all killed by the highly proficient Mexican cavalry. Again, this is not a criticism. There is no shame in escaping a disaster.

When the Alamo fell, William Travis and James Bowie, the Texan commanders, entered the history books as heroes. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, the Mexican commander, entered the history books as a great historical villain. Both views are oversimplified.

The most interesting of these men was Santa Anna. He combined political opportunism with ego, brutality, and some military skill. He spent 13 days in a full scale siege of a military post the Texas high command had ordered given up. Santa Anna never seems to have thought of leaving a force to “mask” the Alamo, and then pressing on to catch the Texan army and government. His ego needed a “big” victory.

Santa Anna ordered the execution of the few soldiers captured at the Alamo; though this paled in comparison to the 400 or so prisoners he ordered shot after being taken captive at Goliad a few days later. Santa Anna learned this brutal treatment of prisoners fighting, on both sides, in the savage 11 year war it took for Mexico to win its independence from Spain. This produced an uncompromising fight to the death attitude among different factions of Mexicans. It convinced his opponents in Texas that no rapprochement was possible with Santa Anna.

A few days after the Alamo fell, Santa Anna set out east in pursuit of the Texas army, under Sam Houston. Santa Anna divided his force into several columns. This could be a highly effective plan. The problem arose when the advanced column, which Santa Anna personally commanded after the Alamo fell, got caught napping, literally, by Sam Houston and his army at San Jacinto. It took the Texans about 15 minutes to win the battle, though they spent the next hour gunning down Mexican soldiers trying to flee or surrender.

Santa Anna was captured a day later, and capped this phase of his “service” to his country by signing a treaty granting Texas independence. In 1835, the United States and Mexico were about the size geographically. Twelve years after the Alamo and San Jacinto, Santa Anna’s “expert” military skills had made Mexico and continental United States about the size they are today. The final piece was the Gadsden Purchase, a piece of southern Arizona and southwest New Mexico. Santa Anna sold that to us in 1853. Santa Anna qualifies as a villain, but more to the Mexicans than to Americans.

Unlike the prisoners at Goliad, executed after their incompetent commander surrendered them, the men of the Alamo, except for the few captured, died fighting. They voluntarily passed up the chance to leave and save their lives. The defenders of the Alamo provided myth and motivation for the Texans. But they lost. Losing, and getting wiped out, is not the way to win a war. Keeping out of the reach of your enemy during the six weeks or so of the retreat/strategic withdrawal that followed (possibly to provoke a clash between the Mexicans and American troops moved to the border) known as the “Runaway Scrape” is also not the way to win a war. Bluntly, though, he who ups and runs away lives to fight another day. When that day arrived, finding that your enemy had gotten careless, failed to entrench and fortify his camp along the San Jacinto River against attack, and picked a wrong time for an afternoon nap, is the way to win a war. The Texans did not behave well after the fighting at San Jacinto was over. But they won the battle.

The main advantage of this book is to provide an updated “you are there” picture of one of the most famous incidents in history, and one of the more influential events in history. The reader is with William Travis, as he gradually realizes he and his men are in a death trap, but never gives up hope nor discourages his. You are there at the ineffective efforts of the Texian (the term for white Texans at the time) to respond to the pending disaster. You are there with the Mexicans, almost leisurely preparing to attack, with a commander seemingly more worried out his image than the lives or his men, or his objectives. The Alamo and the next major battle at San Jacinto led almost inexorably to the United States going to war with Mexico in 1846, and to war with itself in 1861. The 150th anniversary of the American Civil War is a good time to examine a major incident on the road to that war. It is also a good time to examine a major influence on the modern history of the United States and of Mexico. This is a good time to remember the Alamo.

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